It is said that knowledge is a curse, but my knowledge of the dramatic arts was the last thing I ever expected to manifest this truth, out of all my skills. For those of us Kenyans who know how to read the mise-en-scene that is downtown Nairobi, the last few weeks preceding and during French president Emmanuel Macron’s visit have been interesting to say the least. But as a film director and scriptwriter, and I am sad to say I have witnessed a lot of terrible acting – a true mutilation of the theatrical arts upon the streets of the city. Still, I am not sure the practitioners of this travesty were aware of the fact that they were, to the trained eye, in terrible need of dramatic correction. The theatre show they produced was untitled, but I want to call it ‘These Are Not Your Streets – Part1’ and it has been showing on the street, right beside you, if you had the eyes to see.
Let me explain, but let’s make it interesting; What do the following three Kenyans have in common? A tall ‘msee wa kupima weight’ sitting silently and openly in the daytime along the Kenyatta Avenue pavement, his head lowered, all his attention on his phone as people pass him by. A sensibly dressed woman sitting on a tree stump on a Saturday, around lunch hour, chewing through a large roasted maize cob slowly and making no attempt to seek the shade of a nearby tree with a bench underneath. A sweet vendor out late, about eight thirty in the night, leaning silently against a lamppost where the shade hides the upper part of his body and only the sweets in the small bucket hang between his legs in the light. Well, can you guess?
For one, they are all doing things counter-intuitive to the nature of the jobs they are supposed to be doing. The msee wa kupima weight is not calling out to customers or nervously looking out for city council. Why? The woman on the tree stump is pouring sweat, and wiping it with a handkerchief, but not moving into the shade? Not even taking off her backpack? Why? And the sweet vendor, what’s up with that? That’s downright suspicious. At that time no one buys sweets from bus windows. At that time, even if a sweet vendor was leaning there, his little bucket would not be arranged for daytime. If I was directing that scene in a film and I saw that extra, I would yell ‘Cut!’ and send him back to the costume department for a makeover.
I’ll tell you what else they all have in common; they are all plainclothes police. The city has been on mini-lockdown these last few weeks. The oblivious and the privileged have probably not even noticed. But every young man from Eastlands, every street urchin, every hawker, every tout and bodaboda rider, every sex worker will tell you it has been perilous. It has been necessary to be able to read the stranger on the street and decide on the quality of their acting. If you failed to see all the bad acting happening around you, you might have found yourself in some terrible trouble. Ask the two matatu touts I saw at OTC, handcuffed by a plainclothes police officer who was dressed like an underground rapper, bling and torn jeans and all. At what point did they realize that he was not a rapper? When it was too late, evidently. Ask the young man I saw on Wednesday morning sitting near the Tom Mboya statue in downtown Nairobi, two bad actors standing over him, glowering down at his face as one searched his pockets. As I was walking away, I think I heard a slap. At what point, as they walked towards him, did he realise they were not going to a nearby office but that their office was the street, and he was their unfortunate business?
If the last few weeks have taught me anything, it is that everyone needs some knowledge of acting. At least, everyone needs to be able to differentiate the good from the bad. You see, even the real wajango –the ones who grab you and press a pistol in your back demanding your money and phone– even they usually need to ‘act’ a little in order to get close enough before they show their true colours. I have a feeling that that slight bit of theatre education might not only make us safer on our streets, but also that it will change the entertainment industry for the better. I don’t even blame the poor security officers, most of them must have been trying out theatrical roles for the first time ever. However, I request the government to invest a little more in the theatrical arts, if just because it seems to be such a critical skill for national security. God forbid those who want to harm Kenyans learn good acting first, right?
Now as a professional, and in general, I don’t trust bad acting. Even a good friend will sometimes fail the good acting test and often you discover that they were trying to lie or withhold some information in these cases, such as why they need to borrow money. But now comes the twist in the tale… I was careful all through the week to keep a safe distance from any of the bad actors, and lord have mercy, they poured the whole force into this theatre production without auditioning them. There were some terrible examples indeed. I saw a sweet vendor even ignore a mother and child. Sweet vendors love selling to children. I think the biggest factor of the bad acting that stood out was the simple ignorance of the real life of the character whose costume they had chosen to wear.
I didn’t think it through very well though. I should have remembered the other constant I have observed in most bad actors I have directed – they are often unaware that their acting is bad and are utterly convinced that they are the next Lupita. I should have seen it from their point of view. They must have sat and wondered, but how does he not fall for our marvellous acting? So instead of avoiding suspicion, I think I must have aroused it instead. But thankfully, they finally found a decent actor to send my way. On Tuesday morning, as I walked up the hill up State House Road to go to Pawa254, a short bespectacled old man, bald with white hair, was walking slowly up ahead. As I came up the road, he watched me wipe the sweat off my face and smoothly took the opportunity to start a conversation.
‘Kuna joto leo, eh? Kwanza kama uko na njaa ndio unaisikia vizuri.” (It’s hot today, eh? Especially if you are hungry, that’s when you really feel the heat).
I liked how smooth his improvised entry was and I am not a bad actor myself, so I smiled and decided to walk with him and chat a little about life.
‘Nikifika ninapoenda kwanza nitakunywa maji baridi ndio nitafute kachai,” I replied. (When I get to where I’m going, I’ll have to take some cold water and then look for tea).
‘Eh, yaani siku hizi kuna njaa. Ukiona jua imewaka hivi, jua kuna njaa.’ (Eh, these days there’s hunger. When you see the sun blazing like this, there’s hunger).
‘Kweli mzee, watu wamesota sana. Sasa mimi naingia hivi.’ (That’s true, old man. Now, I’m going to turn here).
At this point I was about to turn right into State House Crescent and he was still walking ahead of me. He made his first mistake then, he walked on as if he was still going up State House Road before turning again to follow me. I looked in his face and saw him take the mistake with the grace of a seasoned performer… I smiled. How did the police find such a great actor? I could use such talent for my next film. But now I was curious.
‘Kumbe ulikuwa unakuja huku kama mimi?’ (Oh, so you were coming to this place, like me?)
‘Eeeh, ninataka kununua sigara kwa hiyo duka ya mluhya.’ (Eeeh, I want to buy a cigarette at this kiosk run by the Luhya guy).
Again he was impressive, he had done some homework and knew that there is a small tuck shop by the gate of Pawa254 run by a relaxed old man called Stevo. I smiled. He didn’t seem rehearsed at all – a natural actor, but not on your screen. We walked together, discussing the economy, and the heat. When we got to the gate, I bought him a chapati at the kibanda opposite the shop. I told him I was now going to work and wished him well. And I walked away wondering if I had been going about the situation completely the wrong way. It seems, the better plan is to pretend you can’t see bad acting. Perhaps I simply should not be thinking like a scriptwriter or film director when I am on the street. Perhaps it is I who should be perfecting my acting on the street, playing the complicated role of ‘man-who-does-not-see-bad-acting’ as I walk among the throng. So for the last few days as Macron’s visit has wound up, I have attempted to relax a little more around the bad acting all around town. I must admit though, it has not been easy.
Truthfully, sometimes they did not bother to act at all. Some days – specifically from Thursday through to Saturday – it was like a badly directed dystopian horror film. I guess they were worried that there might be some trouble before and during the busiest dates of the UNEA summit. It was well into the very dystopian territory of ‘physical-presence-as-threat’ and violence hung heavy above every street like rain clouds, waiting for an excuse to pour down. I remember walking up Wabera Street from Mama Ngina Street and a burly gentleman following behind me for a few minutes, his nose barely inches from the back of my neck. Then he suddenly sped on, perhaps to follow other prey. As he passed me, I remember noticing a small can clutched tightly in his hand, his finger on the top part of it. My guess, it was a can of mace. And going by the expression on the man’s face, (alikuwa amebonda like he had safari ants in his underwear) I sense he was disappointed that I hadn’t given him any excuse to use it.
There is a shop window at Kipande house facing the street at which we sometimes stop to dance as we come from Pawa254. Yes we do; what can I say, we are after all artists – and art is a way of life, not a nine-to-five occupation. I was walking ahead of everyone else as we came up to it that evening and then I saw them — a large group of bad actors standing around the spot, at least twelve, pretending to be regular people heading home. Except, they were all drifting too close to your side, bumping you on the shoulder, or in some cases, turning right round to walk by your side and listen to your conversation. It was not a time to be oblivious. I know bad acting, but I also know when people are not acting anymore. There was no more pretence of theatre. We hurried on, past the dancing spot, and on our way. We didn’t dance that day.
We got to our different bus stages without incident, but not before one tall gentleman had suddenly turned to block my friend’s path and take a deep long sniff of his face right in the middle of Moi Avenue, trying to smell him for traces of ganja. Now surely, that is well within the realm of sexual harassment. If I were directing that film, I would have fired that actor immediately for breach of contract. That was not bad acting anymore, just very bad behaviour. It should not be condoned, in any sort of theatre produced for public consumption.
I have been thinking about the whole exercise in a new light, wondering if all over the city, young people like me were also feeling the overbearing weight of the security performance. Feeling restricted to just given spaces, unwelcome in some. Feeling as though they were not really the audience of it, because why would the cast of a play meant for me seem so unfriendly to me? As if I was not the intended audience of the show, but some charlatan roaming about their stage. I thought this was my city too. You can see why I gave their theatre production the title that I did. I have been wondering if better acting on their part would have made a difference to how their show made me feel. It is a long shot, but I have decided to volunteer some free theatrical advice.
To all you first time actors and actresses who debuted in the country’s biggest theatre production this year, congratulations and kudos. Welcome to the entertainment industry and good luck. I have two quick pieces of advice for you after the show. Your performances were affected by two major first-time actor mistakes. The first and most common mistake many of you made was being over-serious. There is no reason why a sweet vendor I have never met would be glaring at me angrily instead of trying to sell me sweets. Some of you, especially the men, already have faces that are ‘angry by default’. For such people, deliberately trying to look serious moves your performance quickly from the genre of drama to the genre of horror. Watch out for that next time.
The next and most common mistake you made, though I am much more lenient about this one, was a very common acting mistake – unintended smiling. I mostly observed this among the actresses – why, there was one who smiled right at me even as she attempted to steal a photo of my face on her phone, perhaps amused by her own undercover actions. Good acting needs one to not let their emotions give them away. I am glad though, I much preferred the smiling ladies to the wasee-wa-kubonda. Which young man doesn’t like a pretty actress giving them some attention? Your next production is bound to be much better if you remember these two tips.
I have also been thinking about the old man who spoke to me on my way to work. Why me? Why did he follow and ‘perform’ for me? Who asked him to? For what purpose? I wonder if he does it for a living, this subtle and not-much-known form of theatre acting. When I told my friend Dulizmo about it, he didn’t hesitate;
‘Huyo ni mbleina. Hiyo ndiyo wera yake. Huyo alijengwa ng’at ama rwabe akutrace mpaka penye unaingia.’ (That’s a spy. That’s his job. He was paid a hundred or two hundred shillings to follow you to your destination.)
I am not surprised to hear that opinion of the old man but I am much more interested in the nature of his work. If he does it regularly, then he is a professional actor operating in the theatre of real life. Old man, if they show you this article, come and look for me at the place you followed me to. We didn’t get the chance to talk about your acting career and I really think your best days are not yet behind you. You have what it takes to be a great film or theatre actor. And you owe me a chapatti.
I reiterate; I don’t blame the huge cast of ‘These Are Not Your Streets – Part1’ entirely for their bad acting. Again, experience with Kenyan TV and theatrical productions has taught me that many times, the reason the acting is bad is because someone tampered with the production and/or rehearsal budget. You can’t blame an actor for something like bad costuming, or an inappropriate prop. Someone with a good eye for theatre is supposed to help them with such things. Perhaps I have discovered a unique opportunity for actors and theatre practitioners like myself. It seems that the security profession is in need of good theatre production skills much more than they might admit. And lord knows, paying work for artists can be hard to come by. I am glad to see that they put up such a concerted effort to perform their show and some of them, such as the mzee who spoke to me, certainly deserve at least a Kalasha award.
And to all other young film and theatre actors all over the country; it turns out, your country needs you!
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The Enemy Within
Death hangs heavily over people with cancer – it is always there, reminding you of your mortality.
So, this is what happens when a doctor tells you that you have cancer. The first response is disbelief (how can this be true?), followed by anger (I don’t deserve this, I never hurt anyone), and then a deep sense of grief and loss (what will I miss when I die, and how will my loved ones cope without me?)
They say cancer is the result of pent-up anger and resentment. Apparently, years of holding on to these emotions make your cells misbehave and become toxic. Cancer cells end up eating up healthy cells, leaving the body so full of poison that it collapses from lack of vitality. The jury is still out on whether lifestyle choices generate cancer in the body because people who lead healthy lives seem to be as prone to cancer as those who don’t. Nonetheless, when you find out you have cancer, your first reaction is to blame yourself. It is sort of like being told you have HIV. (Was I responsible for this? Was I reckless? Should I have used a condom?)
Friends and relatives will tell you that breast cancer is beatable, that they know so many women who had breast cancer and lived healthy lives years after treatment. What they don’t tell you is that all the literature points to a short life expectancy after the discovery of cancer. The chances of recurrence are high, even with chemotherapy, mastectomy or radiation, the traditional methods to “cure” breast cancer. I have read studies where women who had chemotherapy had an equal chance of recurrence as those who didn’t. So, death hangs heavily over people with cancer – it is always there, constantly reminding you of your mortality.
Most people are so afraid of cancer that they can’t even say the word. The receptionist at an oncologist’s office actually asked me what kind of “C” I had – never used the word cancer. Yet she deals with cancer patients every day. Another oncologist I consulted couldn’t even make eye contact with me and rushed me through a diagnosis I couldn’t understand, perhaps believing that my cancer was contagious?
The thing is that cancer is not like any other disease that can be cured through surgery or drugs. It requires months of treatment and constant monitoring. It’s not like having malaria or a broken bone. It is like having an enemy residing in your body, hostile, predatory, waiting to pounce at any moment.
It seems a positive frame of mind is critical in recovering from cancer. I got calls from women who told me they bounced right back into their lives after months of treatment as if nothing had happened, that I mustn’t believe all the literature, that I should get all the treatments done and go back to living a normal life. They didn’t explain to me why they have been working from home since their treatment started and since their so-called “recovery”. Others are more honest about their experiences. A South African women called to tell me that her experience with chemotherapy had damaged her heart, and she is on life-long medication that makes her urinate every few minutes, which means she can no longer work in an office. Instead of destroying the cancer, the chemo destroyed healthy cells in her heart. She is cancer-free but now disabled in other ways. Another friend told me her aunt died not from the cancer, but from the chemo.
What the doctors and the optimists don’t tell you is that both chemotherapy and radiation have debilitating impacts on your body. They literally are poisons injected into your body to kill another poison. Sort of like a vaccine but not quite because they do not boost your immunity. Both chemotherapy and radiation therapies involve weeks of hospital visits that cost an arm and leg. Nausea, burns on your body, fatigue are common side effects.
A friend from Boston who has studied alternative ways of healing from cancer (including not getting any treatment at all) tells me that each woman with breast cancer has to make an individual choice about what kind of treatment she should get. Doctors trained in Western medicine will be quick to put you on chemotherapy and the other treatments without giving you other options. Desperate and eager to cling onto life, the patient with cancer readily accepts any treatment, not realising that not only is it a very long process, but very costly as well. Mental preparation and psychological support are also necessary before embarking on the long and arduous journey called cancer treatment. People become life-long patients; some recover well, others not so well. Some women opt for no treatment, preferring to lead a good quality of life before the disease ravages the body.
I am looking at alternative methods of healing, including Pranic healing that works on your energy fields and chakras. So far it seems to be helping me, but only time will tell if I will be a success story. I have certainly started eating more, and those dizzy spells in the morning seem to be getting rarer.
The biopsy results are not yet out, so I am still not sure what the oncologist will prescribe, but in Kenya, the modus operandi seems to follow the same script: mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy or radiation and some kind of hormone treatment. Am I ready to go there? Not sure. Women who lose their breasts speak of feeling like an amputee; the loss of an organ that defines their femininity impacts their identity and self-esteem. Others are more casual about losing their breasts, (“It’s just fat,” one woman told me). `
The other thing about cancer is that when you have it, you think of nothing else. Everything is a blur. Someone wants to make small talk, and all you want to do is look the other way or scream. (Can’t you see I have cancer? Do you really want to discuss the weather?) You think about your life in vivid film shots. Your past suddenly comes into sharp focus, both the happy and sad days. You begin questioning the meaning of life in ways you never did before. Cancer prepares you for death the way a fatal car accident doesn’t. Is sudden death preferable to dying slowly because you can’t see it coming? Not sure.
But let me not be the purveyor of doom and gloom. The reason I am writing this article is that I have learned wonderful things about myself and other people. One of the things I have learned is that people can be kind and generous when they know you are in pain. People I don’t even know and have never met have sent me good wishes, prayers and even money for my treatment. Friends and family have sent food and offered accommodation. An Indian friend called to say that if I opted to go to India for treatment, I could stay in his home for as long as I needed. These generous and kind offers have literally brought tears to my eyes.
What I also learned is that my life’s work has not been a waste, and that my readers love and admire me for my writing. I didn’t realise I had inspired so many people, not just in Kenya but around the world, through words I have penned. That is a really important things for me to know and hold onto right now – to realise that I had a gift that I used well, and which helped others. And to know that when I go, my writing will live on.
I also learned that life is very, very short. So, we must not postpone the things we need to do. If your job makes you unhappy, quit. If a relationship is toxic, leave it. If people around you are making you feel bad about yourself, walk away. Surround yourself with people who love and cherish you. Love is very important for human survival, so distribute it freely. Be kind and generous. This thing called life is temporary, so enjoy every moment and live it as if every day is your last.
Someone’s Grandmother Just Died!
It is painful to always have to consider the feelings of others while legitimate calls for acknowledgement of racial injustice and reparations are consistently ignored and dismissed.
Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, I watched the televised service at St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh attended by the royals and various Scottish dignitaries, as well as the many hundreds who came out to pay their respects or to be a part of this historical event.
As I watched the outpouring of public emotion, I couldn’t help but wonder what emotions the queen’s death would invoke in those whose lives have been blighted because of the British colonial policies that killed millions and left a legacy of misery and disenfranchisement in countries far too many to name.
At first I was saddened by the news. But then came the reactions of global figures the world over, with some proclaiming outright that Queen Elizabeth had been a guiding light, a symbol of hope and stability in the world. One broadcaster went so far as to say “She was everybody’s grandmother.” My problem was that she wasn’t mine.
My grandmother, born in 1923, was just three years old when the Queen was born, my 81-year-old mother told me when I called to get her reaction to the news that the Queen had died. “She would’ve been 99 years old today if she had she lived,” my mom said. I could hear the emotion in her voice as she remembered her mother. My grandmother died in 1983; she was 59 years old. I was then just 18 years old. I said, “Mom with all the things we know about the racist systems that have kept Black and Brown people oppressed, I really don’t know how I want to feel about the death of the British Queen.” Never one to mince her words, my mom replied, “She was a human being, and we, well you know, we mourn the loss of any life.”
Yes. She may have been a grandmother to many but to me she was a symbol of institutionalized racism in its clearest form. Images of British dynasty have been present in the education of every American who has gone through the public school system since the Second World War during which the United States allied with Britain in their quest for global power and dominance. Yet here was the evil of the Crown being portrayed in the media—as it’s always been portrayed—as providence, something divine. As I listened to a special broadcast by the popular British talk show host James Corden talking to an American audience about the Queen’s passing, his tone struck me as odd: “She will be missed, she was everybody’s grandmother,” he said, going on to tell us how well she had served the country and the world.
As I was listening to Corden and wondering why I was so irritated by his outpouring of emotion, it dawned on me that racism moves from generation to generation, falling back on the old practices of how to colonize a nation: You teach them to love you more than they love themselves. Racism survives because the symbols of racism never die. We carry the symbols in our hearts and in our minds and once we have identified with them, we seek to justify their existence. While I could empathise with those that felt a special connection to the Crown, what I realized and felt most immediately, was the insensitivity I received as an African American who bears the scars of the legacy of slavery that has made the British Empire one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world today.
The next day I watched the funeral procession move through the streets of Edinburgh, the commentators conveying the solemn mood of the people who came out to pay tribute to their Queen. All the while I couldn’t see past the 1989 image of Princess Diana hugging a child suffering from HIV/AIDS. On her first unaccompanied trip overseas, Princess Diana spontaneously broke with protocol and showed compassion towards a suffering Black child with all the world watching, at a time when the stigma of HIV/AIDS was as bad as the disease, and Blacks were being impacted the most and no one else seemed to care. Diana’s humanity helped solidify her reputation as the “People’s Princess” and it radically changed the way AIDS sufferers were perceived.
While the news played on I thought about two recent exchanges I had had in Amsterdam, just outside my front door. The first exchange took place in a cafe.
I was sitting at the bar having a coffee. Another Black male of Surinamese origin was sitting a couple of tables away. It was midmorning and we were the only ones there. In an attempt to start a conversation, as men do, he asked my opinion on the war in Ukraine. I told him I thought it was crazy, all too unreal. The white Dutchman behind the counter leaned over and candidly shared, “I don’t give a shit about the war in Ukraine.” I didn’t speak again and left the bar so abruptly the young brother asked, “You leaving?” I was in no mood to have that conversation so early in the day, having experienced the backlash of the “Black Lives Matter” protest with the counter-narrative that All Lives Matter; I’ve learned that sometimes it’s better to just hold one’s peace and walk away. (It literally is your peace.)
Shortly after that incident, a couple of days later, I had another encounter that made me realize that we simply can’t afford not to care. I had wandered into a tool shop on the corner of my street that looks more like a men’s gift shop inside than a hardware store selling nails, drills and plywood. Behind me walked in a man who apparently knew what he wanted because we reached the cash register at the same time, he with a power drill in his hand. I moved aside to let him be the first in line, not sure if I was done.
The Dutchman behind the counter seemed not to have noticed that the man with the drill wasn’t Dutch and didn’t speak the language. But to his credit, he did know what he wanted: the drill and a bag in which to put the canisters of spray paint he had already placed on the counter. Being familiar with Eastern Europeans, I assumed the man was Polish and asked “Polske?” “No! Ukraine!” he said, then, smiling, added, “Close.”
“Hij wil een tas.” He wants a bag, I said to the clerk; bags are not automatically handed out after a purchase these days. The clerk then understood and reached under the counter. I was pleased I could help and the Ukrainian was happy as well. To my surprise, as I placed my items on the counter, the Ukrainian tapped my shoulder and offered a fist bump.
I say all this to say of the human condition that people appreciate what they understand. And sadly enough, we rarely think about injustice until it is visited upon us.
Whose permission do we now need to talk about racism and the policies that still impact us today? Africa and the African diaspora’s historical issues are and always have been about racism and this is why members of this group, my group, will always hold a contrarian view when the West attempts to compel us to join them in their moment of grief. My grandmother died in 1983, at the young age of 59, in a small southern town next to a river; there was no horse and carriage, no media. The British Empire once covered the whole world, a dominance that was achieved through suppression and oppression. Many atrocities were committed and entire communities decimated under the authority of the Queen. I was raised never to speak ill of the dead because they aren’t here to defend themselves but I will submit this: it is painful to always have to consider the feelings of others while legitimate calls for acknowledgement of racial injustice and reparations are consistently ignored and dismissed. Where is the same fervour and energy for those issues that matter to us?
When we as Black people keep the peace, we empower the presence of the historical lie that we are inferior and thus require control. When we remain silent we allow the systems of the institutions and the prejudices that block our collective growth to thrive. Why should we care about the death of the Queen when the Queen has stood for the oppression of our people? Why should we be guilt-tripped into silence, into not speaking out about the dead, into not pursuing our freedom? When will our emergency, the issues that impact Black and Brown people, become a top concern for the White world? When will I be able speak without fear of being branded just another angry black man, angry for what I don’t have that others do?
Sad as the Queen’s death is to those that survive her, honouring her service is a symbolic gesture that must be contextualized because, for many, and not just in the UK but all over the world, the English monarchy is a symbol of oppression. I recently listened to a podcast in which a Black podcaster scolded an guest who said this of the Queen: “She is the symbol of colonialism and racism for many; however much we want to romanticize the Queen of England’s long reign on the throne as a stabilizing force on earth, she has also allowed many human rights violations on her watch”. The podcaster’s response was a classic putdown, “Why do Black people have to always bring up racism? Someone’s grandmother just died!”
Racism endures because when we identify with its symbols, we will do anything and everything in our power to justify and defend them.
So What is an African Immigrant Today?
Anti-migration policies against Africans and a general climate of persecution against foreigners in Europe and North America are sending African migrants to new destinations such as China, Turkey, the Middle East and even South America.
I was 24 when I fled Rwanda for the UK in 2007. A successful political reporter, I had just been made head of the flagship investigative pull-out magazine The Insight, whose work was gaining the admiration of many inside Rwanda. I also ran a weekly column, The Municipal Watchdog, writing about topical social issues, and was filing for Reuters, Al Jazeera, Xhinua, as well as the Associated Press. This was my life, and I loved every bit of it.
Meanwhile, some 4,000 miles away in the UK, and in my case Glasgow, a city that had now become home, a dangerous and sustained campaign against people like myself was taking shape. Britain was in the tenth year of a Labour government, and while the party had transformed the country’s economic fortunes, a particular kind of malaise was beginning to set in. Desperate for power, opposition party politicians (mainly Conservatives and UKIP) as well as sections of the media were starting to whip up public anger over two issues: immigration and welfare. Debates around immigration were getting nastier, often with racist undertones. The BBC broadcast The Poles are Coming, a 50-minute television documentary and part of the White Season Series in which filmmaker Timothy Samuels set out to interrogate the growing narrative against immigration.
“You don’t have to go far these days to find a little slice of Poland or Eastern Europe in your town,” he says, before adding, “But for some in Peterborough it’s all too much.” The film cuts to a crowded doctor’s surgery and school before a visibly irate middle-aged British man retorts that Peterborough is “completely and utterly swamped”. Seconds later, a town councillor chips in to say that the country has had enough of immigration.
I remember watching the documentary in my one-bedroom flat in Glasgow, and feeling scared. There is a tendency to think that asylum ends the day you become resettled. While this is somewhat accurate, it is far from the truth. The loneliness, the worry about all the things left behind, family and friends, keeps one wondering. Nothing is ever certain. It also depends on one’s specific threat. I know of people, myself included, who continue to look over their shoulder years after we were granted protection – because the truth is, you can never be sure. The question that kept coming back to me was, if this is how Eastern Europeans are treated, the majority of them white with blue eyes and so able to blend in, what chance is there for us Africans?
After all, I was already living in a high-rise building, with all sorts of neighbours, some of them active drug addicts or recovering addicts. But life goes on, and indeed it did. Despite the occasional noise, I got on well with my addict neighbours and was never subjected to insults or troubled in any way for the six months I lived in the flat.
A common misconception about those of us seeking refuge is the almost universal condemnation as to why we didn’t seek protection from the first safe country we entered. “France is a perfectly peaceful country, they could have stayed there,” I have heard people say of those crossing the Channel in dinghies. There are of course a myriad reasons why people may not avail themselves for protection in certain countries despite passing through them. People want to settle in countries where they have a local connection – friends, relatives, or because they speak the language.
I passed through Uganda, Kenya, and Holland before landing at Heathrow. In my asylum interview, I was asked why I did not seek protection in Uganda or Kenya. My answer was always the same: Rwanda continues to have very good relations with its neighbours, and in the case of Uganda, they share a border. The possibility of being harmed is increased the closer you are to the country you fled, and the better its relationship with one’s host country. Besides, there is no legal obligation for refugees to claim asylum in the safe countries they pass through. Declining to do so does not disqualify them from refugee status.
People want to settle in countries where they have a local connection – friends, relatives, or because they speak the language.
Most of these conjectures are built around a lack of understanding of the diversity of African migration. Anyone following debates on migration from Africa to the Global North might think that the burden is too much. But as studies have shown, this is not true. As The Elephant has previously reported, most African migration remains on the continent. Around 21 million documented Africans live in another African country, with countries such as Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt being some of the main destinations. Targeted anti-migration policies against Africans, implemented in part through stringent visa policies, and a general climate of persecution against foreigners in Europe and North America, have seen would-be African migrants head to new and more receptive destinations such as China, Turkey, the Middle East and, in some cases, South America.
From my own experience as a former asylum seeker, I know that migrants are not necessarily fleeing war or poverty. Those who saw me land at Heathrow on the morning of 22 July 2007 might have thought I was another African immigrant, escaping poverty and disease. But the truth is that, like the majority of the people who make it out of Africa into Europe and the Americas, I wasn’t. If anything, I was part of the African elite that is able to cut through the stringent visa requirements, can afford the pocket-busting airfares, and is able to take risks to come to countries where, whether they are seeking asylum or not, they are not exactly sure of the final outcome of their case. To the suffering Africans, this is often too much of an outlay, especially so when the country next door or the country a few countries north or south can welcome you and provide sanctuary for less than the cost of a UK visa. When it comes to migration into the Global North, Africans will only migrate if they have the ambitions and resources to make this happen.
Around 21 million documented Africans live in another African country, with countries such as Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt being some of the main destinations.
In the lead-up to the Brexit vote – which was heavily influenced by what those campaigning to leave the EU kept referring to as uncontrolled immigration – there were more Eastern Europeans in the UK than migrants from Africa or Asia combined. Yet the entire campaign was dominated by discussions about illegal immigration – deliberately painting the picture that the country was being swamped by foreigners, many of whom were already subjected to some of the most stringent visa requirements. Even Nigel Farage’s infamous Breaking Point poster, which was correctly reported to the police as inciting racial hatred, was deliberately punctuated with brown faces as if to emphasize the point that white migration is OK, non-white not as good.
I was having a discussion with one of my neighbours a few weeks ago – a son of Irish folk who migrated to Birmingham, England, in the 1950s. He has only been to Ireland twice in his life and while he considers himself Irish, he doesn’t think he is regarded as Irish. He speaks with a Birmingham accent and has lived in the South East of England for over 30 years now. I do not believe him to be racist but some of his views could be very easily construed as racist towards “these foreigners that can’t stop complaining”.
“Why is it only young men that are crossing the Channel?” he asked. “If the situation in their countries is so dire that they have to flee, why are they leaving behind their family? Would you leave your wife and children to be killed or even raped? I wouldn’t.” When I asked him what he would do if the only money he had left after selling most of his possessions was enough to transport one person out of a family of four, he replied: “I don’t know but I would have to think of something”. And when I pestered him to tell me what that something was, he responded: “I don’t know.”
And herein lies the folly of the dangerous migration rhetoric that has been carefully promoted by right-wing politicians with the help of an increasingly agenda-driven media. A son of an Irish couple, who left Ireland for a better life in Birmingham, and were most likely subjected to discrimination as IRA sympathisers during the Troubles, has grown up to Other those doing exactly what his parents did all those years ago. “We can’t let in everyone,” he says. Except we are not.
This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.
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